House of the Dragon writer/executive producer Ryan Condal has always found his creative proclivities leaning towards the epic. As any working screenwriter will tell you, stories told on a massive scale are commissioned, but it’s rare for them to actually get made. In Condal’s case, he’s been able to dabble in his preferred milieu, writing scripts for an adaptation of The Art of War, Hercules (2014), and the adaptation of the video game Rampage (2018). But his dream project was to craft an episodic, high fantasy drama.
Around 2016, Condal got the rights to Robert Howard’s Conan the Barbarian in the hopes of shaping it into a high fantasy, streaming series for Prime Video. “That was me kind of going, ‘Well, I’ll never do a Game of Thrones show, so what’s the next best thing?’” Condal tells IGN about the winding creative path that would lead to House of Dragon. “There’s a lot of Thrones DNA in Conan because George R.R. Martin was hugely influenced by Howard, as was J.R.R. Tolkien.”
Game of Thrones: House of the Dragon Cast
As Condal was showrunning the last season of his USA series, Colony, he was introduced to director Miguel Sapochnik via their mutually shared agent who thought they would get along well. “It was just after he had directed “The Battle the Bastards,” but it had not yet come out,” Condal says. “He also loves Conan and had grown up on Arnold Schwarzenegger and that film and loved the comic books. We just hit it off.”
Aware of what Sapochnik was accomplishing on Game of Thrones, Condal asked if he would want to develop a Conan series with him and immediately agreed. “He was then off making Thrones for a year,” he explains. “I was writing scripts and sending them to him and he was sending me feedback.We wrote three scripts and a Bible for that show. And then it was unceremoniously jettisoned over there when Lord of the Rings happened.”
Condal elaborates, “There was a change in [Amazon] studio leadership, with all the things you dread as a writer, with them acquiring a massive, much bigger property that’s in the same genre and with a new head of the studio. We knew we weren’t long for the world. But then immediately from the ashes of that arose the House of the Dragon.”
Two months after Amazon passed on Conan, Condal says he had a beer with George R.R. Martin, who he’d become friends with while filming in Santa Fe, New Mexico for the never picked up NBC pilot for The Sixth Gun. “He just said I’m in town and he offered me a job and I was blown away.” The job was as an executive producer on one of the several Game of Thrones series being developed at HBO, specifically the one about the Targaryen dynasty when they were flush with dragons. “And the only reason I was available to do it was because Amazon had just recently crushed my dreams,” Condal jokes. “I was like, ‘Did I manifest this? It was kind of crazy.”
Condal says he then reached out to Sapochnik and suggested he just shift to co-showrunning House of the Dragon with him. “As I worked on the writing part of the pilot with Wes (Tooke) and a small team of writers, making a Bible and a second episode for about a year, I stayed in touch with him and kept saying, ‘This is meant to be. Conan didn’t happen, but this should be you.’ And he just kept saying, “I’m never doing Thrones again’ because he was traumatized by shooting “The Long Night” which was 55 days straight of nights.
“By the time he came home, I was actually able to put material in front of him and it was pretty well cooked,” Condal continues on how he kept wooing Sapochnik. “A year had gone by and there was a lot so you could see that this thing had a vision, and there was a roadmap. He couldn’t help but be charmed by it, and by me, and then, we’re off again.”
Having never worked at this scale before, Condal says he knew they had the perfect set of complimentary executive producing skills to make House of the Dragon feasible. “We have these two really big, practical bubbles with me as a writer and him as a director. And then in the middle is all the creative stuff where we really have seen eye to eye, generally since the very beginning,” Condal says of their creative rapport. “I can’t think of any creative issue that has come up between us that we haven’t been able to solve in a meeting or like one night of sleep. Sometimes it’s synergy and sometimes it’s just him convincing me, or me convincing him. But we knew from Conan—even though that was just a theoretical process and we never actually made anything—that we have the same creative taste generally. Particularly in this world that’s masculine in the sense of blood and guts, and power and glory. And the things that I loved about Thrones were the things that he excelled at. It was really just about figuring out what is this actual show that we’re making together? And what’s different about it?”
What they settled on in Martin’s sprawling mythology and history was the heyday of the Targaryen’s power. “This is the height of Targaryen influence and decadence,” Condal details. “It’s 60 years of peace and prosperity. They’re richer and more powerful and more influential, and nothing can stand against them. They have between 13 and 17 Dragons, depending on whether you count wild and hatchlings. But nobody else has dragons in the whole world. They are the lone nuclear superpower and everybody’s generally getting along. It’s right when the cracks start to form,” he says ominously. “With decadence comes downfall.”
“It felt like a really interesting place to drop people,” Condal explains. “Just like with Star Wars, the original trilogy, you heard all the great tales of the Jedi and there was the Old Republic, and there used to be thousands of Jedi peacekeepers throughout the galaxy. But [in the original trilogy] there are three of them and they’re being hunted by the bad one. But what was it like when they were in power? I think it’s the same kind of question that we’re playing out here.”
Condal says House of the Dragon stays away from being an allegory for current times. Regardless of how familiar the political machinations may seem, or if characters have traits of real life people, there is no actual intention to create clear parallels. “There are definitely big themes in the show about power and pride and patriarchy, all “p” words,” he says. “Plus, feminism and family. It’s these archetypal themes that the show is certainly pinned on, but I’m not trying to break down Trump era politics through medieval times because that stuff will feel wrong. I think any artist is trying to create something that has lasting value and the more you pigeonhole something like that, it takes away the timelessness of the show itself. Game of Thrones is a heavily theme-based show that holds up a really interesting mirror to ourselves and reflects an image of ourselves back through fantasy and genre. But it has to be more archetypal than specific.”
And then there’s the question of how much Martin is involved with the day-to-day. Initially, he famously worked closely with Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss penning episodes and helping break early seasons. But that relationship cooled at the end.
Condal says, “Early on, he was very involved because we essentially broke the pilot together. I got hired and I immediately went out to his “Secret Bunker” location, where he does all of his writing. We met for two or three days, and talked about the series overall, and then broke the back of the pilot, essentially. I sent him every outline and every draft of the pilot. Once HBO was happy, he was happy right away. He knew where it was going.”
And now Condal tries to be judicial with his outreach so Martin can write his sequel books and work on other development projects. “I would say we probably talk on the phone once a month. And we text every week, sometimes about the show, sometimes it’s just about nonsense. I always say when Peter Jackson was making Lord of the Rings, if he had a text chain with Tolkien, wouldn’t he have used it?” he laughs. “But the nice thing is he picked me because he trusted me and he knows that I love his material. Sometimes I love his material more than he does in terms of my fidelity to it, because there are certain things that he’s just like, ‘that little detail doesn’t really matter.’ I think I sweat over that more than he probably does.”
He continues, “I feel like as long as he’s happy and it feels that it is the faithful adaptation that I promised to deliver for him, then great. He’s my first port of call. He’s an amazing writer so just being able to be inside his head a little bit and to hear how he thinks is really great. It’s incredible to see him work.”
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